Dwelling on the positives

So many times, the messages we hear as students and postdocs about life as an academic are negative. Departmental dramas, declining public support for universities and basic research, long and erratic hours, the publish or perish rat race mentality, and a constant barrage of grant rejection piled upon paper rejection.  These were the messages I received as a student, yet for some reason I still wanted the all-important faculty position.  Was I just crazy? Was I a glutton for punishment?

I loved being a student, most of the time.  But my perceptions of academia as a student didn’t seem to square with the messages I was receiving from above.  I thought perhaps being a faculty member was just different and I would hate it.  Yet I soldiered on.  I also had a great postdoc experience, and the lame-duck portion of it was blissful. Managing to secure a tenure-track position lifted a huge weight off my shoulders that I was only vaguely aware was there.  But as the transition from postdoc to professor approached, my excitement was balanced by an increasing sense of unease and fear.  What have I done?  What if I hate it?  What if I can’t do it?  What if I never sleep?

So here I am, months into the new position.  I moved across country and made the transition from postdoc to faculty. I started teaching, started setting up my lab, started recruiting students, started navigating all the unknowns and politics of a new job.

Has it been easy? Definitely not- I worked harder these past few months than ever before.  Have I always gotten enough sleep or exercise?  Nope.  Are there parts about my job that I don’t like?  Absolutely.  Will I use this column in the future to discuss some of the negatives or ask for advice about serious issues?  Certainly.

But I love it.  Let me repeat this, emphatically.  I absolutely love being a professor.

I know that not everyone has the same experience as me and that many, many good researchers and teachers have a difficult time getting a tenure-track job in the first place.  I’m also sure some people will read this and say, “Just wait a few years, then it becomes really crazy.”  (People have already said this to me).  But you know what? I’ve been hearing these types of negative messages for years now, and I keep waiting for it to get worse.  And it hasn’t.

For every negative person I’ve interacted with, there have been so many more wonderful ones- fantastic colleagues and new friends; great, motivated students; nice, smart, and competent administrators.

I savor the feeling of accomplishment that comes when I succeed at something difficult, whether it’s finishing a paper or (most often) simply getting through the week with my outbox keeping pace with my inbox.

It was difficult to develop and teach a new class, but my students were great and the class was fulfilling.  When a student grasped a complex concept or asked an insightful question, I felt amazing.  I am so proud of my students, but I’m also proud of me for contributing to their discoveries.

I hate working with vendors and the busywork associated with setting up a lab, but I love thinking about all the shiny new equipment that will allow me to do fun research.

It’s daunting to start putting together new research projects- frame my questions and hypotheses clearly, figure out the ‘hook’ or the message, find new field sites, figure out permits and all the other big and small logistical issue that go along with research.  I have moments when I don’t think I can do it, and times when I’m certain no one else will think it’s interesting.  But the excitement and anticipation I feel when planning out a new research project—MY new research project— is empowering.

Over the past few months, I started off most weeks feeling like it would be impossible to accomplish my goals for the week in the small amount of free time on my calendar.  But I asked for the advice of others and figured out what worked for me. I didn’t spend too much time making sure my lectures were perfect.  I joined a writing group and attended it religiously.  I made meeting new people on campus a priority.  I went away for some weekends to visit friends and family.  And most of all, I went easy on myself and didn’t (or perhaps more accurately…tried not to) beat myself up for not doing my job perfectly.  And so now, after getting through every week more or less successfully, my busy schedule doesn’t overwhelm me that often.  Or perhaps I’ve just been successful at setting more realistic goals.  Regardless, I’m increasingly convinced that I can do it and I’m not going to fail.

Not everyone will get the coveted tenure track job (a topic for a different day), but for those of us who do, I think it’s important to hear success stories. There are so many negative news articles about how hard it is to be a woman in academia that it can be really overwhelming. So, amidst all of that, I wanted to share my experience thus far—one of success, and hope.

26 thoughts on “Dwelling on the positives

  1. Thank you so much for this! As a woman who is beginning a tenure-track position next year, I’m really looking forward to more posts on this blog. Positives and practical perspectives are SO welcome!

    • I’m glad it resonated with you! I have been so RELIEVED at how much I like my job (and that’s a little sad). There are definitely negatives that come along with it, and it’s human nature to talk about those negatives, but I also think it’s important to talk about the positives. Hopefully TSW will provide a mix- future posts will discuss setting up a lab, time management, fieldwork issues, disability and access issues, etc, so stay tuned!

  2. Well done – both being successful and emphasising the positive. It is a pretty good job, all things considered – better than many other peoples’ jobs – and the people one works with are always stimulating and interesting (they don’t all need to become personal friends).

    When I give careers talks to high school kids, I always say that scientists (along with maybe sportspeople and artists of all types) actually get paid for doing their hobby! What could be better than that?

    All the best.


  3. I am starting a faculty position this winter, and you have no idea how happy I am reading this post!

    But I am wondering: what is a writing group?

    • Writing groups can take many different forms, but basically it is a regular meeting of people focused on writing. In my case, it was simply a group of people who met at a coffee shop once per week, for two hours, and focused on writing. We tried not to talk to one another much, and usually checked in with each other at the start about what we were working on that day. In other cases, members of the group set longer-term goals and exchange drafts. Writing groups can also take place online, as in the #madwriting hashtag on twitter. I participated once in an online writing challenges, where I committed to writing 60 minutes per day and tracked my progress with a group online (many resources recommend daily writing). Whatever form it takes, the idea is to set aside some amount of time to focus on writing. I found having a regular time to meet to be helpful because it was one time per week where I never scheduled a meeting, prepped for class, or got wrapped up in all the admin stuff. Here’s an article from the Chronicle about writing groups: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/new-faculty-writing-groups/22732

  4. Thanks a lot for this! I am starting my PhD in October and was beginning to get a little nervous about the path I have chosen. I’ve been hearing how academia makes you miserable, ever since I began my undergrad and I have been waiting for it to become terrible ever since. I still love it. But so many people are convinced that it is only a matter of time until I will loathe it. Thanks for suggesting that this is not inevitable. Enjoy your new position!

    • Congrats on the PhD position! My main piece of unsolicited advice is to try as hard as you can not to worry too much about what other people are doing- if what you’re doing is working for you, then keep doing it! And go easy on yourself. And remember that a PhD is a marathon not a sprint! (OK, that was three pieces of advice). Good luck!

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  7. This definitely resonates with me. This first year has been *insane* and exhausting, but I am loving it. Recently my favourite thing is having the people (undergrads) working in the lab do things on their own and then bring me data! DATA!

  8. Good for you! I’m a second year associate professor and so far I’ve been loving my job, even during the time I was coming up for tenure.

    I did suffer from a two-body problem during my tenure-track years (it got solved a year ago), but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying what I do.

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